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Wait, Should I Take OTC Meds for Post-Workout Muscle Pain?

Working up a sweat at the gym? Awesome. Feeling the pain the next day? Less fun. When it comes to treating those post-workout muscles aches, it’s tempting to get quick relief by reaching for the meds. But is this the best strategy? We tapped Dr. Gabrielle Lyon from the Ash Center to find out.  

“While over the counter NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen) can reduce the pain and soreness associated with your workouts, research has shown that by doing so, you will interfere with any muscle gain that would have come from that workout,” Lyon tells us. Oh. 

Meaning that while it’s safe to take over-the-counter medications to help ease the pain from your killer spin class last night (provided that you follow the recommended dosage and instructions), you may not want to.

Quick biology lesson: When you work out, you’re technically damaging your muscles. But this is a good thing (as long as you don’t go too hard, of course) because your body then adapts and heals the damage, which in turn makes you harder, better, faster and stronger.

But a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that OTC meds gets in the way of this process, thereby negating one of the major benefits of exercise. (And other studies have revealed similar findings.)

“This is an aspect everyone who is exercising should be aware of,” cautions Lyon. “Depending on the goals of the individual, he or she may be best off leaving the anti-inflammatory in the medicine cabinet.”

FWIW, if you do choose to take an OTC for your muscle aches, Lyon recommends ibuprofen. But there are also other ways to ease post-workout soreness, like a sports massage, foam rolling or—for the very brave—an ice bath.

One more thing: Remember that prevention is key. You should always warm up before a workout and stretch after—no excuses.